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Call Me: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss (2004) and Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood Madam (1995)

Tearing through its exposition at a breakneck pace, Call Me: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss wastes no time getting to its main subject. Within the first five minutes, we learn that Heidi had a strict mother and an easygoing father who encouraged his children to act out. Soon after, we see teenage Heidi organizing the neighborhood girls’ babysitting schedules, foreshadowing of her management skills. In the next scene she learns her parents are divorcing. Three minutes later we see Heidi’s boobs as her creepy older boyfriend, Ivan Nagy, recruits and then sells Heidi to her future madam, Alex, for $450. At first, Heidi Fleiss is outraged with her pimp boyfriend, then for no apparent reason decides to go along with him.

Young Heidi’s first client is a curly-haired rock star. When he leans in to kiss her neck, she shoves her hand down his pants and demands $1,500. He scoffs at her so she turns to leave, asking, “Is it lonely at the top?” He then asks her to stay and the deal is sealed. Although I have never worked as a call girl—and please ladies, correct me if I’m wrong—but I’m going to make the assumption that insulting your client is a bad tactic. The scene felt unrealistic and I found myself doubting that the real-life Fleiss could have been so successful despite such poor social skills.

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

The “girlfriend experience” concept is really interesting. In escorting, the “GFE” is treating a client as you might a lover—you talk to them about their day, share a bit about yours, kiss, cuddle, and have an intimacy that goes beyond penetrative sex. Men want space to be vulnerable and talk about what they’re going through to a woman who will pet their head and tell them it’ll be OK, enough to pay for it. Can a sex worker maintain that intimacy while still maintaining professional boundaries? And what do you do when you no longer want to maintain those boundaries, when you want to take it personal? How do you deal with the fallout?

Afternoon Delight (2013)

(poster via axxomovies.org)
(poster via axxomovies.org)

There’s a scene in which under-the-weather-feeling, anti-heroine protagonist Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) describes the way she feels as “shit city.” Afternoon Delight, directed by Jill Soloway, is shit city. This film screamed “rescue project” from the very start. Rachel is a bored, restless, wealthy, vaguely hipster stay-at-home mom living with her husband and young son in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Her contemporaries are mostly other jobless, Jewish, “hip” housewives who spend their time doing volunteer work, if only to thoroughly document it on social media; organizing play dates amongst their elementary school-aged children, and running something called “Craftacular.” Thing is, Rachel doesn’t like this life and she doesn’t like these women. She wanted to be a war journalist. In a scene near the end she wails, “I was so bored I could have died!!!!” One of this film’s only saving graces is the fact that her therapist is Jane Lynch, whose character is truly the only “delight” Afternoon Delight has to offer.

Magic Mike (2012)

You’ve got to be on bath salts if you don’t already know that Magic Mike is the new Steven Soderbergh film about male strippers, based on head hunk Channing Tatum’s experiences in the business. Everyone knows this, and there are no spoilers, really, because we could tell you everything that happens in the movie without ruining your enjoyment. So: Mike (Tatum) brings in newbie Adam (Alex Pettyfer) to Tampa male strip club Xquisite, run by senior stripper/manager/owner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Hijinks ensue as Mike crushes on Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn, rivaled only by Sasha Grey in acting ability) and tries to start his own business, Adam gets a case of babystripper hubris, and Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) swings his namesake around. For our beloved Tits and Sass readership, Kat and Bubbles gladly dragged themselves to a screening to give you our stripper-biz-centric thoughts. We’ll leave the analysis to other reviewers, because what we are interested in are the elements that relate to stripping, not Soderbergh’s commentary on capitalism or his orangey color schemes.

Bubbles: How excited were we to go see this movie? I’ll readily admit that we went in rooting for a good time, as did the rest of the audience. It reminded me of being the stripper at a hyped bachelor party where they’d throw money at you and holler at the simplest flex of a buttcheek.

Kat: There were women who got to the theater at 4:30 in the morning and waited all day in 104 degree heat, essentially risking their lives. The excitement in the room was tactile. I thought some penis goggles would have completed the giant bachelorette party sisterhood vibe, but Magic Mike turned out to be such a blast that I didn’t even need phallic accessories to enhance the experience. Not to mention that I would hate to wear anything that would potentially obscure my view.

Bubbles: No kidding. What a visual delight!

Kat: What this movie lacked in plot, it made up for in amazing choreography and tearaway pants. Pants that disappear with a single tug would be the Magic Mike drinking game cue.

House of Pleasures (2011)

Ah, those dreams about crying tears of sperm--a sure sign of sex worker burnout (gif made out of screenshot of House of Pleasures)
Ah, those dreams about crying tears of sperm—a sure sign of burnout (.gif made out of screenshot of House of Pleasures)

House of Pleasures (also called House of Toleration or L’Appolonide: Souvenirs de la Maison Close in its native France), directed by Bertrand Bonello, is a film depicting the last year of a legal French brothel, a maison close, at the turn of the 20th century. While the film does predictably illustrate the old prostitution-is-inherently-miserable motif, sex working viewers will find much to enjoy in the close examination of brothel history and the dynamics of women’s spaces that the movie offers. Then, of course, there are the costumes and the intense outfit envy they engender in any hooker with a pulse. The brothel workers wear diaphanous, clinging gowns that look like proper dresses in shadow but reveal their transparent naughtiness in candle light, and look even more temptingly gorgeous draped along with their wearers on the lush upholstered furniture of the maison. These elements, along with the sharp dialogue that director Bonello gives the workers, kept me watching, even when the crude, supposedly “feminist” analysis and the all-too-voyeuristic violence against sex workers he inserted into the movie made me want to hurl my remote control at the screen.

C’mon!  Take this scene, for example:

Client: [After long, tedious description of the plot of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds—this guy is obviously the Victorian antecedent of people who blurt out spoilers] Have you read it?

Brothel Worker: No. My only two books are Sade’s diaries and the Bible, and I don’t read the Bible.

My kind of girl!

And at first I thought that House of Pleasures might provide the audience a nuanced economic analysis of its protagonists’ work: Early on in the movie, it’s made clear through a close up of the madam’s ledger book and the women’s anxious conversation among themselves that most of the workers are deeply in debt to the house. Throughout the narrative, the women and the brothel itself struggle to survive in the face of the crushing reality of a raised rent. There are even some interesting insights about the unpaid emotional labor involved in the work, as it’s implied that in this upscale environment, what’s being sold as much as the sexual services themselves is a cheerful, carefree attitude of refined femininity. While the women tally their success at the end of the night by the number of men who took them upstairs, they must linger for hours in calculated languidness downstairs, making conversation and cozying up with idle clients, playing board games with them and seeing how many party tricks can be performed with a champagne flute. “Try to be joyful,” the madam chides them at the beginning of the evening.